Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith
…well written and well-acted, and it certainly takes us along for the ride.
In a predominantly heterosexual world, it is the fate of many gay people to grow up hiding or in the shadow of family disapproval. Such is the experience of the lead character in Alan Ball’s heartfelt drama, and it powers the narrative throughout the film.
Ball wrote the modem classic American Beauty (1999), and if he wrote nothing else, his place in the history of Hollywood would still be assured. He has however, also gone on to create a number of TV shows (Six Feet Under, True Blood) and films (Towelhead) and Uncle Frank is an honourable addition to his oeuvre.
The story is told partly through the eyes of Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, Sharp Objects, It films), about to start college in an East Coast university. She has always revered her uncle Frank, because he was so much more urbane than the rest of the family, and because he encouraged her and never belittled her ambitions. At the same time, she could never understand why Frank visited the family so rarely and why he stayed in the background so much when he did.
Beth goes up to college and then the penny drops when she learns that Frank is gay and that he lives a semi-closeted life with his Saudi-American partner Walid (Peter Macdissi). When Frank’s domineering father ‘Daddy Mac’ (Stephen Root) dies, Beth travels with Frank and Walid back to the family home for the funeral.
Lillis is well-cast and she is a face to watch. She has that wide-eyed but still somehow knowing persona that launched the career of the young Ellen Page. Here, she is a good foil to the way Paul Bettany plays Frank as both an accomplished and confident man and someone who is undercut at his core by the hostility of the people he loves the most. Both of them are outsiders who know that the world doesn’t have to be mean and insular. If there is one thing that we notice about the film though, it is that it has a slightly tragic view of homosexual life. Admittedly, the film is set in the the past, in a largely conservative rural setting, so we can console ourselves with the idea that things are different today.
However, what comes across is that despite taking pride in being gay, the characters’ lives are marked largely by struggle and by having to fend off society’s hostility. The few scenes where Frank and Walid are happy are sketched in but the rest of the world for them seems distinctly uncomfortable by comparison. The film is well written and well-acted, and it certainly takes us along for the ride.